SXSW – South by Southwest
March 9, 2023 – 10:40 in the morning
I went to SXSW for the first time in 2014. I went back the following year. And now, eight years later, I’m back in Austin and the madness of the biggest digital innovation festival on the planet. I thought about those first experiences, trying to draw parallels with this year’s edition, the first post-pandemic “no limits”. Some things remain, in my opinion.
The first is the supreme character of SXSW: hundreds of sessions, tens of thousands of participants, countless topics about the present and the likely future. Plus, we still have a (thankfully) endless list of activations, happy hours, concerts and parties that defy any nutritionist’s guidelines. And there’s good news: endless queues and daily step records promise to be reduced, with innovations introduced in recent years, such as SXXpress (“queue jump”) and scooter apps that, unlike in Brazil, bravely resist there.
Looking through my photos and notes from past editions, I can identify some topics that were high on my agenda and that of a few other participants at the time. One example is wearable devices. Dozens of sessions were held on beacons, sensors, gadgets and how it will profoundly change people’s lives and interactions with brands. Just remember that the Apple Watch, perhaps the flagship product of its kind, was released in 2015.
The promise was to expand human capabilities and senses through these technologies, giving us enhanced experiences and bridging the real and digital worlds. If the wearables trend didn’t materialize with the intensity and scale predicted at the time (sorry, Google Glass), today we’re seeing some of that same promise, enhanced reality fusion, in the metaverse debate. After last year’s maddening enthusiasm, it will be interesting to catch a current, more pragmatic understanding of how this topic may (or may not) make its way into our daily lives in the coming years.
Another topic that dominated many discussions many years ago was big data, with its opportunities, challenges and ethical dilemmas. Cloud computing platforms were winning the game, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and social networks promised an avalanche of data. As a result, brands, companies and governments have been excited and concerned, in equal measure, about its application.
Now, in 2023, I see the same level of conflicting emotions surrounding the big issue of the moment: Artificial Intelligence (AI). SXSW comes amid a tsunami caused by ChatGPT and related solutions. Various lectures on the subject, including the one that will bring the CEO of OpenAI (owner of ChatGPT) to the stage, promise to be the most attended and with the most heated discussions. As is always the case when talking about these technologies with exponential potential, there is a dualism, often fatalistic, of opinion. It’s very likely that, like the big data predictions made years ago, we’re half right and half wrong. The problem is that we will be able to distinguish between these two extremes only in the future, looking back.
This year, a topic that was not highlighted in 2015 will also be discussed. And I’m not talking about cannabis and its industry — which, by the way, is one of the themes of the event. I’m thinking about the future of work. It’s impossible to go to SXSW 2023 and not be involved in the discussions and sessions on the topic. The debate about the hybrid format, fueled by the pandemic, is still very active and current. The effects of this transformation, both on corporate culture and on the way people perceive and (re)signify their relationship with work, have not yet been fully defined. But, if this topic already deserved to be highlighted in this edition of the event, the AI phenomenon managed to increase its relevance exponentially. After all, we all want to know how it can not only affect, but completely change our careers and the careers of our children. In this relationship between machine and man, who will control who in the future?
In the end, I realize that the fundamental characteristic of SXSW has remained even in the time that separates me from my first trips to the event. It remains one of the best imperfect prisms for understanding the world. Prisma, because in its various songs and sessions it gives us elements that allow us to sometimes break down, sometimes integrate different themes and angles and, in addition, force us to see the rich and complex intersections between technological progress and deep cultural transformations. Imperfectly, because it translates our best present vision of the future and is therefore limited by our current cognitive and technological understanding. As Peter Drucker said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. In the coming days, SXSW will give us precious tools to continue this never-ending journey of building.